This morning I was reading Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety (in the bathtub, for those who track this kind of thing), and was struck by a chapter about a dinner party of some young English professors at the University of Wisconsin in the early middle of the last century. There is a lot in that section to grab my attention, including the academic climate just after the depression (people still cared about Chaucer and Spencer like they mattered), the drinking habits just after prohibition (capable hosts couldn’t mix a Manhattan), and the social dynamic between husbands and wives who could read Homer in Greek, and who would stand around the piano and sing hymns after dinner then listening to Beethoven A-sides in the sitting room. What fun!
One striking moment came when Sid, the party’s host, read from a volume of Housman, and everyone knew he was leading things a bit, but they indulged him as he read “Easter Hymn.” Then they discussed it in terms of what it meant for understanding the rest of Housman’s work, how it seemed too Christian for the old guy, how the two stanzas seemed out of order — and I loved reading all that. It made me 10 minutes late for work. Then I wondered if it would be possible for a contemporary poet to revisit Housman. Certainly no one today ought to go back and emulate him directly — he’s too transparent, too wrought in scansion and sentimental in thought to be compelling nowadays — but is anyone who’s any good making an update?